Despite being British born and raised, I’m regularly asked where I’m from.
"Where are you from?""London."
"No where are you from from?"
"No like from, originally?"
"My mother’s womb"
A frustrating conversation for the inquisitor. A banal conversation for me, because I’ve endured it on countless occasions.
It's symbolic of the tension that third culture kids everywhere find elaborate ways of anesthetizing themselves against -– our smorgasbord of identities and cultural experiences means that we belong everywhere, yet belong nowhere at all.
For those wondering, I’m of Nigerian descent. Nigeria is a country in West Africa that’s rich in resources and beautiful people. Like most of the countries in its continent, Nigeria is riddled with internal contradictions, and in desperate need of a noble leadership committed to see her reach her potential.
My father came to England as a child following the Biafra civil war. My mother met him while on holiday in London during the early 80s. They fell in love, got married and built their life in England.
The confusing politics and complexity of identity aside, I’ve found "belonging" and being familiar with many worlds has meant my life is immeasurably richer. I have a deep insight into various cultures. I'm aware of their points of tensions and areas of overlap. My perspectives and experiences have a nuance I suspect they would otherwise lack.
Sadly, I’ve only been to Nigeria twice. I feel at home in London. It is my home. However I’m aware there are parts of English society that remain impenetrable to people like myself. People like Emma McQuiston, who will make history when she marries Ceawlin Thynn, Viscount Weymouth and become Britain’s first black marchioness, have experienced this first hand.
The daughter of a Nigerian oil tycoon, Emma hardly comes from humble beginnings. The fact she qualifies on a crudely “financial” level isn’t enough. She’s experienced snobbishness and senses that she’s been made to feel separate because of her race and class.
"There’s class and then there’s the racial thing," says Emma according to The Mail. "I’m not super-easily offended but it’s a problem when someone’s making you feel different or separate because of your race. I have never had anything horrible said or happen, but it is something you sense. You can just tell with some people."
This doesn’t come as a surprise. England is staunchly classist. Try as we might to pretend things are otherwise, and claim we have one of the few genuine meritocracies in the world, but we care about class.
Adult conversations between strangers are usually led by three questions -- “Which school did you attend?” “What do you do?” “Where do you live?” This is a classically British way of deciphering what social class a person is from, and where they aspire to be.
But the truth is there is no way of joining the upper echelons of British society. Try as you might. You cannot buy your way into this world. You may even have the fortune of marrying the future King of England, and still even the most progressive British newspaper will refer to you as a “commoner.”
The British aristocracy is impenetrable, simply because you have to be born into it to belong to it. The barrier to entry has little to do with race, and everything to do with class.
The issue of class division and its implications on how we interact with each other is not a recent one. In the 1800s, a British prime minister named Benjamin Disraeli, conceived the idea of “one-nationism.” He sought to architect government policy in a way that bridged the gap between an increasingly polarized society. This social agenda informed much of British political policy at the time; unfortunately it hasn’t become our reality.
Nineteen of our prime ministers attended Eton (an elite public school). Sixty-seven percent of our cabinet went to private schools, compared with just seven percent of the population. Being born into privilege means you’re more likely to govern and walk the corridors of power.
Our social contract is underpinned by a distinct set of values. While you can be born American and can become American, you can be born in England and never be considered English. Furthermore, British citizenship doesn’t necessarily engender the same type of belonging that becoming an American does.
I’m currently living in New York, and due to the American affection for all things British (especially the accent and the Royals), I’ve had many amusing conversations. I recently encountered a middle-aged man who remarked he never would have guessed I was British, because to him I looked African American. I explained to him I was also African.
"What, African African?"
And that was that. He nodded and smiled, telling me he’d tell his wife he’d met a fully British, fully African girl that day.
That conversation could have gone rather differently if I had massive insecurity around my heritage or was overly concerned with how this man felt about me. However when it comes down to it, our perception of how those around us perceive us is massively informed by how we perceive ourselves.
If I were Emma, I would become less concerned with fitting into a world where I’m considered an outsider or even caring what they think about me. There is no way into the aristocracy. Most of us are destined to always be considered outsiders and at best you can be an outsider on the inside. The best thing to do is not concern yourself with catapulting yourself up the social ladder, and choose to endeavor to fit in the place we were all created to -– inside our own skin.